Death Becomes Us

One of the hardest days of my life was when I preached at the funeral of my cousin Ron. He died fourteen years ago, aged 33-- this past Monday was his birthday. Ron and I were born five weeks apart. He and I spent weekends together our first eighteen years-- it seems like every weekend we were at his house, or mine, or just as likely, we were both at our grandparents'. To this day I still don't know the official cause of his death, and honestly I don't need to know. An old adage says, "Death ends a life, not the relationship," and I know it's true. I think about Ron nearly every day. He even shows up occasionally, very much alive, in my dreams from time to time.

The fear of death plagues just about all of us at one time or another. We worry about the end of our lives, what the next life is like, if it is even real or just a fantasy. Will we see this person or that beloved pet or will our loved ones look as we remember them-- or as they remember themselves? How will we be able to recognize each other? The Bible doesn't have much to say about the subject of an afterlife, or offer specifics about heaven and hell. But we do get glimpses here and there on how to deal with the reality of death.

In our text for today, we see directly into Jesus' own soul. Shortly before his own death on the Cross, Jesus is summoned by the sisters Martha and Mary. Their brother and Jesus' friend Lazarus, has fallen ill. They want Jesus to come. But he decides to wait a few days, saying Lazarus' death will have a larger significance than an individual life. After a couple of days, and despite the disciples' insistence that avoid Bethany, Jesus declares that he will go. By this time Lazarus has died, but the reality of grief is very strong. The physical struggle has ended; the emotional struggle has only begun.

Even before he arrives in town, Martha hears that Jesus is close. She runs out to meet him: "If you had come when we called, the one you loved would not have died." Jesus, summoning his love for Martha, says, "Your brother will rise again." It's meant to be a comforting promise, a word of hope during a difficult time. But Martha isn't in the mood for good news: "I know he will rise on the last day." I know. She's upset-- not only at the death of her brother but at Jesus' tardiness. In her grief she is trying to manage the situation. Jesus won't leave her there: "I am the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever lives and believe in me will never die. Do you believe this, Martha?" "Yes Lord," she says, recovering from her terse response earlier. "I believe you are the Christ, God's Son, the one coming into the world."

Next, Martha runs home and informs Mary that Jesus has come. Still before he has entered the village Mary confronts Jesus: "Lord, if you had come, our brother wold not have died." Mary's emotion fills the scene. She falls to Jesus' feet. The crowds around her begin to weep. feeling the brokenness around him, Jesus is disturbed. "Where have you laid him?" he asks. Mary says, "Come and see." Then a remarkable thing happens: Jesus' heart is overwhelmed with grief. It's a very layered emotion he's feeling. He is grieving for a friend who has died; he hurts for his friends Martha and Mary in their grief; he knows his own death is imminent; he is frustrated at the lack of faith of those around him. When he calls for the stone of the tomb to be removed, Martha, back at the scene, protests: "It'll stink! IT'S BEEN FOUR DAYS!" Underneath the words, unspoken: "If you had come when we called, my brother wouldn't have died."

Incredulous, Jesus asks Martha: "Didn't I just tell you..." but then he says, "Roll away the stone!" The formerly dead man Lazarus walks out for everyone to see. Jesus orders him to be unbound from his funeral wrappings, free to walk into a resurrected life. I've preached on this story more times than I can count. I at least mention it, if not outright deliver a sermon on it, at every funeral I do. "I am the Resurrection and the Life" is a central teaching of Christian faith. "Do you believe this?" is the question every believer must answer in their walk with Christ.

Today I'm thinking about this story from a different angle. The speed at which we are expected to overcome our grief in the face of death. Mary and Martha have had four days to deal with the loss of their brother. The Jewish practice of sitting shiva has been observed: friends and family, members of the community who may not have known Lazarus personally, are everywhere, silently offering support and comfort. Until Jesus shows up. The crowds join in the crying of the sisters, but also offering commentary on the situation: "See how much he loved Lazarus!" they say when Jesus weeps. "But why didn't he help him like he healed the blind man?" others say. Jesus hears all of this. He is not offered any space to grieve. No one offers to sit in silence for him. Ever faithful to his mission, he presses on, leaving any emotions to be fully dealt with later, if ever.

The rush to overcome our grief, to move on from the shadow of death, can be overwhelming. Put on an emotionless front. Embody the strength we suppose others need to see from us. But Jesus does not play along with these false feelings. He embraces the moment and becomes truly vulnerable, truly human. He also does not lose faith in God. Before he calls the dead man out of the tomb, he prays: "Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me, but I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." Grief may make us feel isolated, but we are not alone. Death may make us feel like God has abandoned us, but we know God always hears us. This good news frees us to be authentic with God. Jesus knows our griefs, died our deaths, and rose for our sakes.

This week I glanced through one of my favorite books, Days of Grace by tennis great Arthur Ashe. He contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion in the late 80s, and wrote the book to reflect on his amazing life and witness to his final struggle with death. Reflecting on his faith, he extensively quotes the great African American preacher and theologian Dr Howard Thurman, who said,

Any tragedy has inherent in it positive good. The pain of life may teach us to understand life, and in our understanding of life, to love life. To love life truly is to be whole in all one's parts; and to be whole in all one's parts is to be free and unafraid. Death is something happens in life, rather than to life.

Following my cousin Ron's death, I said to my mom that I didn't want to be considered the family chaplain. I didn't want to do everyone's funerals. It was too painful, and I didn't want to deny myself the chance to grieve for a loved one who had died. That stance lasted for thirteen years, until the death of my Uncle Donald last year. The family asked me to preach his funeral, and I agreed, and it was a wonderful celebration. Tears were shared, but life was honored-- not just Uncle Donald's life, but life itself.

So may you know that grief is a powerful emotion, but one where we are given space to be and feel. Jesus himself experienced grief, and in this scene in Bethany revealed to us and everyone present the heart of God: the each of us is precious and loved. That God hears us, even when we feel alone or abandoned. Do not rush to move on from the pain of death, but be present in it. Be that presence for others who are hurting. Never forget: as much as Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, so he loves each of us too. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.